DALLAS — Albert Pujols could have been a wealthy Cardinal for life, planning for the day his statue would be erected outside Busch Stadium next to those of Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and the other St. Louis greats.
Instead, exactly six weeks after leading the Cardinals to a second title in one of the most thrilling World Series ever, he decided to accept the second-highest contract in baseball history for a new future in southern California with the Los Angeles Angels.
The three-time NL MVP agreed Thursday to a $254 million, 10-year contract with the Angels, leaving behind a heartbroken fan base by jilting one of the sport’s traditional teams for an expansion club with only one championship in its half-century.
For baseball, it was a virtually unprecedented move.
Many top stars have changed teams in their careers, from Babe Ruth to Willie Mays to Barry Bonds. But this is perhaps the best player in the game over the past decade, exiting shortly after one of the great postseason power shows.
A big and burly offensive force with a shaved head, the nine-time All-Star has a room full of honors, winning the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year award, NL MVPs in 2005, 2008 and 2009, a batting title in 2003 and a pair of Gold Gloves at first base. Who would have predicted that when the Cardinals selected him in the 13th round of the 1999 amateur draft with the 402nd overall selection?
And now, he’s going West.
As his deal fell into place on the final day of the winter meetings, the Angels struck another big agreement, a $77.5 million, five-year contract with left-hander C.J. Wilson, the ace whose Texas Rangers lost to the Cardinals in the seven-game World Series.
“This is obviously the moment where we have thrown our hat in the ring,” new Angels manager Jerry Dipoto said.
Had he stayed in St. Louis before packed, adoring crowds, Pujols would’ve established a Cal Ripken-like legacy of loyalty, a rare modern star who remained with a franchise from first at-bat to final swing.
Instead, some of his former fans will see him as a sellout.
Pujols rejected a multiyear extension last offseason that was said to include a small percentage of the franchise and cut off negotiations a day before he arrived at spring training. St. Louis also offered the slugger a 10-year deal that chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said was in excess of $200 million.
“I would like our fans to know that we tried our best to make Albert a lifetime Cardinal,” he said in a statement, adding later in a telephone interview: “They were substantially higher than our bid.”
In St. Louis, Pujols has accomplished so much that he would have been beloved no matter his future performance. But in Anaheim, he will have to prove himself anew.
“I think his body’s going to start breaking down and he’s not going to be good for 10 years,” said Katie Coyle, fitness coordinator at the Webster-Kirkwood YMCA in Missouri, a die-hard fan who wore team colors to work during the playoffs. “I think he’s going to regret leaving here. If he’d have stayed here and signed a long-term deal with the Cardinals, they’d have had compassion for him because they’ve seen him at his best.”
Pujols’ contract, which like Wilson’s is subject to a physical, is only the third to break the $200 million barrier, following Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million, 10-year deal with Texas before the 2001 season and A-Rod’s $275 million, 10-year agreement with the Yankees before the 2008 season.
“This is a monumental day for Angel fans and I could not be more excited,” said owner Arte Moreno, who bought the team for $184 million from The Walt Disney Co. in 2003, a year after its only title.
Despite a top-four payroll this year, the Angels languished to a second-place finish behind Texas in the AL West. They spent $331.5 million on just two players, capping an unusual winter meetings in which the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox watched while the Angels and Miami Marlins spent as if they were the sport’s financial elite.
Moving into a new ballpark next season, the Marlins failed to reel in Pujols but acquired All-Star closer Heath Bell, All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes and left-hander Mark Buehrle for $191 million, meaning the two clubs committed $522.5 million to just five free agents.
“I think baseball needs to have a steroid-testing policy for owners,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economics professor at Smith College.
At the very same hotel 11 years earlier, teams spent $738.95 million on 24 free agents and none of the three big deals worked out as planned. Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez ($160 million over eight years with Boston) and Mike Hampton ($121 million over eight years with Colorado) all were traded during their contracts.
Pujols became the first player to hit 30 home runs in his first 11 seasons and the second after Al Simmons (1924-34) to reach 100 RBIs in his first 10. He has a .338 average with 445 home runs and 1,329 RBIs to become a franchise icon second only to Musial, and is fourth in career slugging percentage at .617, trailing only Hall of Famers Ruth (.690), Ted Williams (.634) and Lou Gehrig (.632).
But Pujols’ numbers in nearly every major offensive category are on a three-year decline. He had his poorest season in 2011 with a .299 average, 37 homers and 99 RBIs. He batted just .240 in the Series but had a night for the ages in Game 3, joining Ruth and Reggie Jackson as only the third player to hit three home runs in a Series game.
“We understand that players will go through peaks and valleys of sort,” Dipoto said. “Albert has spent many years operating at peak, and if we want to call a decline going from superhuman to just great, I don’t think we’ve seen the last great days of Albert Pujols, obviously, or we wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Some have speculated he is older than the listed 31 and he could be a full-time designated hitter within a few years. “Albert Pujols’ age to me is not a concern,” Dipoto said. “I’m not a scientist. I can’t tell you where he is, but I can tell you he hits like he’s 27.”
The Angels made the move as the financially troubled Los Angeles Dodgers are in the process of being sold by Frank McCourt in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, a deal that could give the region’s NL team a new, wealthy owner. The Dodgers could aggressively bid for talent a year from now, giving them a boost in the regional competition for fans’ attention.
“Winning breeds interest, and we are setting ourselves up to start next season with an opportunity to get good,” Dipoto said.
Pujols agreed in 2004 to a $100 million, seven-year contract, a deal that — with a 2011 option and bonuses — wound up paying him $112.55 million over eight years.
Cardinals fans already lamenting the retirement of manager Tony La Russa won’t get to see Pujols up close for a while — his old and new teams don’t meet in interleague play next season.
“He left a pretty good impact over there. I don’t think fans will soon forget what his contributions were,” said former Cardinals manager and star Joe Torre, now an executive with Major League Baseball. “I still think the St. Louis fans are going to be more appreciative than angry.”
Pujols’ agent, Dan Lozano, split off last year from the Beverly Hills Sports Council to form his own agency, and Pujols’ negotiations seemed like an attempt to surpass A-Rod’s landmark first big deal.
“This is a footprint contract, because it follows the footprint laid by other great players,” said agent Scott Boras, who negotiated Rodriguez’s agreements. “Putting a hitter like Albert Pujols in a big market, where he can be a DH, I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Other teams were somewhat surprised by his decision, but not shocked in a sport that has often seen stars shift for larger salaries. Reaction depended on the league.
“For 2012, two wilds cards and no Albert Pujols,” New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. “I’m happy.”